After the infamous Seeker.com layoffs of 2017 that gutted our original (and, frankly, awesome) Discovery News team, choosing to be a freelance science communicator was one heck of a reality check after nearly nine years of relative job security at Discovery. That said, the past three years have also been immensely rewarding, exposing me to a brilliant community of science writers from a myriad of fields, from high-energy physics to astrobiology to Earth sciences.
But when a job opportunity emerged at one of my favorite institutions last year, I couldn’t help but pay attention and apply. After convincing myself there was “no chance” that I’d land it… land it I did.
So I’ve now traded in my freelancing for a scicomm career at…
Having worked as a journalist and blogger, reporting on the incredible space robot adventures managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the past 15 years, I’ve always pondered whether my career would wind up in an institution like NASA. And I’m overjoyed that it has.
It will be a new challenge working as a media relations specialist and writer at JPL’s communications team, but I think the time had come to evolve my career to a new level while still doing the thing I love at an institution I hold in high regard. Intimately knowing the pressures, challenges, and shortfalls facing writers in science media, I hope to use everything I’ve learned over the past 15 years to effectively communicate JPL’s work to the world.
A huge thank you to everyone who has supported me over the years; I am truly grateful and I hope to make you proud as I embark on this new journey.
As the Stones arrive in Los Angeles to continue their No Filter tour, there’s a space-related twist in store at the Rose Bowl Stadium.
It’s been 25 years since the Rolling Stones played at the Rose Bowl Stadium, so SoCal fans of the legendary British rock band are understandably excited. But, for space fans, there’s a little something extra, as actor Robert Downey Jr. teased in a video he posted this morning:
So, what DOES the Rolling Stones, the Rose Bowl, NASA and Robert’s star sign (steady on now) have in common? As he’s an Ares, I’m thinking it’s Mars, a planet that NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (which is located near the Rose Bowl) knows more than a thing or two about. And the Stones have a song called “2,000 Light Years From Home”…? OK, I’m reaching a bit on the latter (besides, Mars is much closer to Earth than 2,000 light-years), but there’s definitely something a little Martian going on. Will Curiosity beep a Rolling Stones song from Mount Sharp? Has it got something to do with the upcoming NASA Mars 2020 mission? Will the Mars InSight lander make a cameo? Who knows. But I’m all for melding science with music, so I’m excited.
Gather ’round the campfire kids, it’s time to tell the sad story of a brave bat named Brian.
On March 15, 2009, Twitter was days away from its third birthday, Ashton Kutcher was one month away from becoming the first tweep to reach one million followers, and a community of space enthusiasts habitually live-tweeted the final space shuttle launches from the comfort of their homes. They were simpler times.
One launch, however, became infamous — nay, historic — not for the fact it was one of the last handful of launches of NASA’s shuttle program, but because there was a tiny stowaway attached to the shuttle’s bulbous orange external fuel tank minutes before ignition.
During the countdown to the launch of STS-119, as we watched in anticipation of the successful start of Space Shuttle Discovery’s International Space Station (ISS) servicing mission, something seemed amiss at Discovery’s launch pad. At the time, the assumption was that a fruit bat (a common species in Florida) had mistakenly thought the orange external fuel tank of the shuttle was a tree to latch itself onto. Follow-up investigations identified the bat as a free-tailed bat and, though its intentions were unclear, zoologists posited that the unfortunate critter may have broken its wing. This would explain why it didn’t fly away when the shuttle’s boosters ignited, carrying the bat to the heavens — literally and metaphorically.
No one really knows how long the bat held on for, but some creative-thinkers hypothesized that the bat remained attached for the duration, making it into space. I don’t think I have to explain why this didn’t happen — it was more likely booted from the fuel tank in the first seconds of launch enduring a fiery death via rocket booster exhaust — but it was a poetic thought. Regardless of the bat’s fate, it’s ultimate sacrifice made this routine launch special. What was “just another” live-tweeted shuttle launch, became a spectacle that rapidly evolved into an international news story. That bat was special.
And that bat’s name was Brian.
Why “Brian”? A bit of background: For some personal reason that I cannot fathom, I like to name things “Brian.” I’ve always done it. The squirrel that lives in my backyard? Brian. An interesting and unnamed rock on the surface of Mars? Brian. My first car? Brian. That gopher that demolished my newly-planted garden of impatiens in 2011? Brian. A random free-tailed bat hanging off the shuttle’s external fuel tank? Brian. There’s no reason and no logic behind this, Brian just seems to fit. It’s a personal mystery.
So, when lightheartedly tweeting about the bat on March 15, 2009, I called the bat Brian and the name stuck. I had no idea about its gender, and it didn’t have a nametag, but that bat was a Brian alright. Suddenly, other space enthusiasts following the launch called him Brian and, for reasons I have yet to understand ten years later, in those minutes before launch, “Brian the Bat” went viral and suddenly everyone was personally invested in that “routine” space launch. Yes, there were billions of dollars of hardware on that launchpad with seven brave astronauts on board, but everyone was talking about Brian who was shivering on the side of the vehicle, a place that no living creature should have been.
Was Brian confused? Was he frozen to the cold tank? Would he fly away in the nick of time? No one knew, but the clock was ticking and the commentator on the NASA live video stream seemed confident that, as the boosters began their ignition sequence, the bat would be scared by the vibrations and fly to safety.
For reasons known only to Brian, he remained attached. And as the boosters roared to life, he held tight. As the plume of smoke and steam enveloped Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39, I sat with the computer screen nearly pressed to my nose, seeking out the dark pixels of Brian in the place where he was last seen. But the resolution was too low and Brian’s fate was unknown. (Days later, NASA analysts reviewed infrared imagery from the launch, revealing two very sad facts. 1) Brian was warm while attached to the fuel tank, so he hadn’t frozen to death and was alive up to launch, and 2) he remained in place when Discovery lifted off.)
As the adrenaline ebbed and Space Shuttle Discovery soared into the atmosphere, solid rocket boosters separating and tumbling back to Earth, the sad reality crept in. Brian was, in all likelihood, toast.
But his legacy would live on.
Assuming that little space-launch chapter was over, I wrote a summary about Brian’s adventures for Universe Today and on Astroengine with the assumption that Brian would be soon lost to the annals of shuttle-era history. Little did I know, however, that Norwegian journalist Geir Barstein was paying close attention…
Brian also made appearances in The Sun newspaper (but the article has since disappeared) and other smaller publications, and I participated in a number of radio shows devoted to that now-famous shuttle launch.
Not only was the whole event a poignant one, it also made me realize something about the power of social media. In all my years covering space stories, particularly when I was a producer at Discovery News (now called “Seeker”), shuttle launches would receive very little attention. Apart from a few outliers, such as the final shuttle launch, the articles I’d publish about one of NASA’s most significant programs would receive very little readership. The routine nature of these launches meant that, unless you were at Cape Canaveral, interest in seeing shuttles launch into space was lukewarm at best. As a space enthusiast, I was frustrated. Every launch in my eyes was special and certainly not “routine.”
Brian, however, made me realize by accident that you have to seek out the unique thing about that one launch that will hook readers to that story. Granted, not all launches have a “Brian the Bat” moment, but that doesn’t mean they’re not special.
I like to think that the cosmos is doing Brian a solid by commemorating that brave little bat’s ultimate sacrifice.
The event may have been a footnote in humanity’s quest to explore our universe, but I truly believe that the viral social media (and then mainstream media) attention Brian whipped up created a buzz around a launch that may not have otherwise made an impact.
As a science communicator, I’m always on the lookout for interesting hooks to stories that wouldn’t otherwise be of interest, and on March 15, 2009, Brian was that hook — who knows what kind of impact that little free-tailed bat had on viewers who wouldn’t have otherwise been paying attention to one of the biggest endeavors in human exploration history.
So, tomorrow, on March 15, 2019, raise a drink to Brian’s legacy. He will live on in the spirit he inspired when he left our planet attached to the space shuttle’s external fuel tank.
As I freelance for other websites, I thought I’d begin posting links and summaries here on a quasi-regular basis so you can keep up with the other space stuff I write about. So, to kick off the Astroengine Roundup, here you go:
Ever since H. G. Wells wrote “The Time Machine” in 1895, we’ve been fascinated with the possibility of magically bouncing around through history. But it wasn’t until Einstein published his historic theory of general relativity that scientists (and science fiction writers) realized that time wasn’t necessarily as ridged as classical theories predicted. After a thought-provoking chat with general relativity expert Ben Tippett, of the University of British Columbia, I was able to get the lowdown on his mathematical model of a time machine called… TARDIS.
When Europe’s Rosetta mission discovered molecular oxygen venting from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2015, scientists were weirded out. In space, molecular oxygen (O2, i.e. the stuff we breathe) is highly reactive and will break down very quickly. The working theory was that the O2 had been locked in the comet’s ices for billions of years since the solar system’s earliest moments, but new research suggests that 67P is actually producing its own O2 right this moment from a complex interplay between the venting water molecules and chemicals on the comet’s surface. Yes, comets are therefore molecular oxygen factories.
Not So Fast: Magnetic Mystery of Sun’s ‘Stealth’ Eruptions Uncovered (SPACE.com)
Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, are the most dramatic eruptions that our sun can produce. If they are Earth-directed, these magnetized bubbles of superheated plasma can cause all kinds of issues for our high-technology civilization. Usually, space weather forecasters do a great job of at least predicting when these eruptions might be triggered in the sun’s lower corona, but there’s a different type of CME — the so-called “stealth” CME — that appears to come out of nowhere, created by the complex interplay of magnetic fields high in the sun’s atmosphere.
A couple of months ago I was contacted by National Geographic magazine notifying me that one of their writers had quoted me in an article for their December issue. Pretty cool, I thought. But then I forgot all about it.
The following morning, I received a complementary copy of the December edition so I could see Astroengine in print for the first time.
National Geographic’s special feature takes a fascinating tour of the Milky Way and when discussing metal-poor stars in the outermost reaches of our galaxy, the article quotes the title of the Astroengine post “Life is Grim on the Galactic Rim.” Obviously they like my rhyming skills.
In this very special Astroengine.com (and long overdue) post, I had the great fortune to catch up with singer/song writer CraftLass who wrote a very cool song about science, ignorance and the general state of society. I am particularly honored as CraftLass was inspired by my blog (amongst others) when she wrote this wonderfully catchy tune. As you can tell by the link below, she has a huge talent — follow her (yep, she’s one of my favorite tweeps) and hopefully you’ll get the chance to see her perform live. I’m hoping I’ll make it to New York soon so I can do just that.
Q: Mainly, what was your inspiration behind writing the song?
A: There were a few involved in this one, all inspired by reading. The main thrust of the song came from reading your blog as well as a few others like Bad Astronomy and marveling at the comments from people who truly believe in everything that has little to no evidence while refusing to believe what can actually be proven or at least has plenty of evidence that anyone is free to look at.
I think some people are convinced that the job of scientists, no matter the field, is to hide truth when it’s exactly the opposite. This annoys me to no end, especially when it actually hurts people, as in the case of people who hurt innocent children educationally by wanting creationism taught in the science classroom, or physically by refusing to immunize them because other people with a lack of credentials just happen to be effective communicators.
I guess I’d like to try to level the playing field on that one, communicate truths in a format that most people can understand and enjoy, since the other side tends to have “cool” celebrities popularizing their ideas. As much as I hate the sway pop culture has, it’s important to fight fire with fire.
The other big inspiration was the way people in America embraced politicians like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, I’m very politically aware and very independent (not a Democrat), these two and a few others make me sick because they are poster children of smart people who CHOOSE ignorance, willfully.
Leaders should be elected for having the brains and open-mindedness to make real decisions for themselves based on actual facts and Bush, in particular, was elected for being stubborn to the point of harm for not only this nation but the whole world. Elected for the exact quality that is worst in a leader. I’ve been trying to convey my feelings on that for many years and it just seemed to fit into the theme as I was working on this song. “Stubborn is not the same as strong,” is a line I’m particularly proud of since so many people seem to confuse the two.
Q: How has it been received (particularly when performing at a live venue)?
A: I’m astounded at the reception! It’s consistently one of the first songs that people come up to talk to me about. I’m lucky that I live in a pretty highly educated part of the country (the NYC metro area) and quite a few people have said it’s a message they hadn’t been able to put into words, which is extremely gratifying.
It also makes people dance, and I think that when people dance and start singing along the message sinks deeper, so I’m hoping it might somehow reach further into the public to the very people it’s about, perhaps inspire them to question blind beliefs. At some point I would like to record a full-band version to increase that effect!
The other cool thing has been the number of closet science geeks it’s brought out, people who come up to me and say it’s great to see someone wear her love for the subject proudly, makes them feel like it’s okay to love it, too. If more people were honest with themselves (including me) we would probably have a lot less of the brain drain effect in STEM. (It also doesn’t hurt that I’m a cute and social chick with a guitar, not exactly the old stereotype of science geek. LOL.)
Q: What are your thoughts on science communication in general (i.e. is it handled well by the media)?
A: Well, there are so many levels of media right now, we’re pretty lucky. Mass media has been pretty terrible at science communication for most of my life, at least, they tend to prefer stories of failure than anything that goes right, so many areas of science end up looking rather useless (this is particularly true when it comes to NASA and CERN for some reason) and you’ll never hear about the coolest things in traditional media other than the NY Times science section (which has now been gutted, anyway).
On the other hand, the fact that Discovery now has many channels and even created the Science Channel to air more science shows and competitors keeps springing up proves that people have been hungry to learn more than what the networks are willing to give them. These companies are filling the void pretty nicely with good introductions to many areas.
I get most of my science news from the internet, though, as it is the only place to find up-to-the-minute news and deeper information. The problem there is you really have to wade through a lot of garbage to find the good nuggets and read a lot of too-dry-for-non-scientists pieces to find ones that can engage and help someone self-educated like I am. There are quite a few modern-day Carl Sagans out there, though, who can communicate science beautifully, and it’s a very good thing they can publish whether or not they have backing from a major organization. The next thing we need is more clearly defined resources to match the audience with the scientist or writer.
Q: Are you a regular reader of science blogs?
A: Yes, well, when I have the time. Ironically, singing and writing about science has been tearing me away more than I’d like! I try to read at least a few articles every day over coffee, and every so often I’ll just devour everything I’ve missed on a site. I also research what I’m writing, so I’ll search the blogosphere for interesting facts and tidbits on whatever subject I’m working on (right now my obsession is Spirit as I have a song about her half-done, so I’m reading every post I can find).
Q: What surprises you most about some of the comments you read on science blogs?
A: The way that so many people apparently seek out these blogs simply to rant against them. I like to read opposing viewpoints but I don’t understand the amount of time and energy people put into pure hatred. If you are so annoyed by what you are reading why don’t you read other websites? There are millions!
I’m also stunned that people can read the same things I read and just dismiss them. Learning is a lifelong experience and discoveries are constantly made that change what we know, why be so stubborn in clinging to old information and ways of thinking? Living in a time where there is so much exploration and so many ways to disseminate what is learned means we need to stop believing in belief itself and open up our minds to endless possibilities. That should be a cause for celebration rather than anger, and far too many people are in the latter category.
As you may have noticed, things have been rather quiet on Astroengine of late. This is partly due to my pan-European trek and my work on Discovery News, but mainly due to my horrid affliction of procrastination. Hence why I’m late in posting this pretty awesome picture of a lightning bolt blasting across the French skies.
It was an incredible experience and I got to meet some incredible people. Hoping to get a blog post up about the whole thing some time over the coming days, but for now, I’ll leave you with this picture of the storm that hit Strasbourg while I was there. For the full set, check out my Posterous gallery.